Monthly Archives: May 2021

A Conversation with Emanuel Xavier

Next week sees the release of Emanuel Xavier’s compilation, The Selected Poems of Emanuel Xavier, from Rebel Satori/Queer Mojo Press, (you can preorder here) and we were lucky enough to get the man himself to carve out some time and answer a few questions about his life and career:

What impressions do you get looking at your older work? Is there anything you’d change or does it hold up for you?

I think most writers would appreciate the opportunity to improve on their earlier work. It’s only natural to grow and want to edit and perfect. So, yes there is plenty I would change from my backlist titles. There is much that I see differently now through a more mature lens. However, the poems included in “Selected Poems of Emanuel Xavier” are the ones that still stand the test of time in my book. Literally. To have this opportunity is special because it usually happens after one has passed and then it’s someone else making those selections for you, whether it’s a publisher or editor. Even then, it only happens if you reach a certain status as a writer. Putting this out into the world is me raising my hand and saying I was here all along. It is me bringing my own folding chair to the table and taking a seat to say I will no longer be sidelined because I never had the opportunity to attend your colleges or universities as a scholar or because I was writing about being openly queer at a time when it was still something to be implied in metaphors or because I was proudly flaunting my heritage on the page and on the stage at a time when white boys from the Midwest were being celebrated and diversity, equity, and inclusion weren’t part of the larger conversation.

Writing such personal material had to be difficult. Did you ever receive feedback (or blowback) from your family? How did you deal with it?

I have made relatives feel uncomfortable because they feel I am exposing my mom by speaking my truth about our shared history. However, they weren’t part of my experience and perhaps they never really knew what I had to endure as a child. I love my mom and I would never allow anyone to come for her. But I have a right to share the stories about the mistakes that were made. As a teen, I already experienced being abandoned by a parent I never even met, lost my innocence to molestation and was kicked out by the only parent I ever had during the AIDS  pandemic affecting the gay community while coming out. Losing the love of my family was not necessarily a power lingering over me. Nonetheless, I did get support from some of my family. Initially it didn’t really matter that I was gay, they still loved me over time because the world changed and they realized it was them that were wrong all along. 

“Radiance,” your last book, came out in 2016, and I know you’ve gotten married since then. Has settling down in a steady relationship mellowed your work at all?

I think anyone who has lived a decadent life and publicly shared it without regrets is entitled to sit back and enjoy the quiet moments. Nonetheless, I think by nature my literary style and approach will always keep me from the mainstream.

Has there ever been a time when you’ve held back in your work, thinking you’ve gone too far?

As far as my work, I’ve written some gay erotica which perhaps maybe went a bit too far. It’s crossed over into my poetry most famously in a poem titled, “Golden Shower at a Motel 6 in San Antonio” which I read at the Museum of Modern Art surrounded by a group of jaw-dropped tourists. Let’s just say I wasn’t getting any invitations to read as an inaugural poet anytime soon. However, I think what hurt me the most in my career was my decision to host and curate an event for El Museo del Barrio which they had named Spic Up! Speak Out! At the time, I looked at it as an opportunity to reclaim a word that had been used to hurt me personally much like the word ‘queer’ within the gay community. I grew up in the Bushwick area of Brooklyn before it was all hipsters and trendy cafes. At the time it was made up of working class minorities and my mom decided to place me out in a school in Queens where I was bussed in for a year because it was supposedly “better.” It was a predominantly all white school and the kids would chant “The spics are here! The spics are here!” every morning when the bus pulled up. I was miserable and bullied for being a Latino and gay. This was only my personal experience with the word but many had their own real histories with it. After everything I experienced in my personal life, I failed to see the controversy at the time and defending the museum’s stance didn’t necessarily endear me to the Latinx community. I was on watch for being so brazenly outspoken and queer. I didn’t come up with the name of the event. I just agreed to host and curate but unfortunately got caught in the crossfire. The museum changed the name of the series to Speak Up! and everybody seemingly moved on. In hindsight, though it was a great opportunity for me as an artist, it had nothing to do with me and I should have simply stayed out of it.

Conversely, has there ever been an instance where you think you could have gone farther?

I think the novel Christ Like could have gone much farther in exploring the main character’s child abuse and experiences as an underage homeless prostitute. There was so much more to explore but I didn’t have any training as a writer of fiction or the support of an editor or publishing house. I was so close to the material. I just wanted to get it out into the world because I was already in my mid-twenties and seriously thought I would be dead like everyone else around me who had lived my life from AIDS or drugs or hate crimes. I took the first publishing offer that I received. Though I’ve had the opportunity to edit and release Christ Like as a twentieth anniversary edition, it remains rough around the edges, even if it is considered to be a cult classic by a select few.

How has the pandemic affected your work?

I suppose much in the same way the AIDS pandemic affected much of my work back in those earlier decades. It helped put things in perspective which is why I agreed it was a good time to put out a collection of selected poems. My husband and I had COVID-19 early on during the pandemic and we watched as people struggled and died around us. I didn’t feel particularly relevant pre-pandemic and so I didn’t feel inspired or motivated to write. But then this opportunity came along to publish a collection of selected poems and revisit my own history and it inspired me to write a new poem and a preface for the book.

How do you recharge? What relaxes you or gets you motivated to write again?

After getting married, I moved from a crowded Bushwick area to a quiet neighborhood which turned out to be incredibly suitable during an epidemic. We love going out for walks and listening to the squirrels and running into the occasional wild turkeys. That sounds hilariously suburban but really it’s not that different from running into hipsters with vocal fry and hideous bangs. All kidding aside, I’ve been very lucky to still keep my job in publishing so I have continued access to great books and still get them delivered to our home.

What are your influences? Whose work has most informed your own?

I didn’t actually meet Jean Michel-Basquiat but we shared an experience at the West Side Highway piers shortly before his passing. I was an underage hustler and didn’t know who he was at the time. It was early one morning and he was stoned and either cruising me for sex or just contemplating on how fucked up of a situation we were both in. In any case, I can’t claim to have been in his head but I do remember it being long enough that it would be deemed stalkerish had it been anybody else. Later, when I found out how talented and famous he had been, it left an impression on me because it made me realize how it didn’t matter where you were in life. At any given moment two people could be in the same place at the same time due to whatever circumstance. That was one of the experiences that influenced me to share my work regardless of the fact that I had no formal education as a writer or the support of editors or publishing houses. Here was a minority street artist that became a worldwide phenomenon in spite of adversity. I also have to credit Willi Ninja and the ball community because they literally gave me the balls to get up on stage in front of a notoriously homophobic hip hop audience that followed spoken word poetry in the mid-90s and fearlessly slam them with my truth. As far as literary influences, not only did Leslie Feinberg provide much personal support but I loved his book Stone Butch Blues. I really miss him. Poetically, I miss Justin Chin. We used to write silly fan letters to each other and meet up during visits to San Francisco and New York before we lost touch with one another. Unfortunately, he also passed away. And if it weren’t for Miguel Algarin there wouldn’t have been a Nuyorican Poets Café for me to openly step up and spit some poetry. 

 What’s next? After this collection, what are you working on and what new projects do you have going? 

I can say the new poem included in the book came about because I was invited to contribute to a UK spoken word album as a benefit for the five year anniversary of the Pulse massacre. Another one of the poems in this book has also opened up the possibility of a collaboration for a documentary project. So I’m just going to enjoy THIS moment right now because we’ve all gone through so much.

© 2021 Jerry L. Wheeler

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Testimony – Paula Martinac (Bywater Books)

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Being out while teaching is a tricky proposition no matter what level the classroom is at. It’s less so these days, but not by much–especially if you work in certain parts of the country or perhaps even the rural areas of the state in which you live. After all, bigotry is big again post-T—p, and nothing brings the bigots to the backyard like we do. So, Paula Martinac’s Testimony, inspired by the real life story of UCLA’s Martha Deane, is as timely as ever–even though it shouldn’t be.

Professor Virginia (Gen) Rider teaches history at Baines College, a private school for nice, young white ladies in Virginia circa 1960. She’s just gotten tenure, but she’s still shaken when one of the male professors gets arrested for sex in the park–with a Black man, no less–causing the anti-queer brigade to descend on Baines with a vengeance. Although she’s just broken up a long-term relationship with a woman, she still feels unsafe and unsure, as does her best male friend, Fenton, who teaches theatre and used to date the prof who got arrested. Determined to carry on with her life, however, she attempts to begin a new relationship with a fellow professor only to be seen kissing her by a neighbor doing dishes at a window facing her home. Gen’s career is suddenly in jeopardy as she becomes the subject of a schoolwide witch hunt.

The story is old and sickeningly familiar, but Martinac’s telling packs quite a punch. She’s particularly adept at capturing the foreboding, tense atmosphere of the college once the inquisition starts. She does this not only through Gen, but through Fenton as well.

Fenton is a particularly interesting character who has some typical reactions of gay men threatened with discovery during that time period. He’s not discovered or outed, but he wants to head off trouble any way he can. He tries dating women unsuccessfully, tries celibacy, even tries therapy–but he doesn’t go along with the home shock aversion equipment the therapist recommends. None of these work, but he finds the reserves within himself to come up with a solution of his own making. It might not be the ideal outcome, but at least it’s not one forced on him by discovery and discharge.

Fenton aside, this is really Gen’s show. But rather than meekly quit and simply go away as some suggest, she finds a lawyer and decides to fight. It would be a spoiler to relate exactly what happens, but she’s faced with a big choice, even though her fight results in a partial victory. As Fenton does, she devises a resolution that may not be ideal, but neither does she lose as much as many in her position have.

Full of fine characters, heartfelt decisions, and gripping, tense scenes, Testimony is a great read that provides both a lesson in history and a lesson in how to survive history.


© 2021 Jerry L. Wheeler

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Selected Poems of Emanuel Xavier – Emanuel Xavier (Queer Mojo/Rebel Satori Press)

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Queer Mojo/Rebel Satori Press

It’s been my privilege and my curse to read on the same program at the Saints and Sinners Literary Festival with Emanuel Xavier–my privilege because of his incredible talent and my curse because I had to follow him. Shakespeare himself would have sounded dull after hearing Xavier tear through “Americano” with his full Nuyorican Poets Cafe slam creds on display. I didn’t have a chance. But now you have a chance to own his greatest hits, and you should take it even if poetry isn’t your usual jam.

Xavier begins with a foreword in which he encapsulates his childhood sexual abuse, his coming out, and his time as a “pier queen,” hustler and drug user along with his eventual success. But even if he had left those boxes blank, the bare, unvarnished plain truth is all in the work that follows. And this collection is especially well-selected, cherry picking the angriest and most poignant fruit from Xavier’s previous books: Pier Queen, Americano, If Jesus Were Gay, Nefarious, and Radiance.

One of the reasons I like this collection so much is that it’s chronological, allowing the reader to absorb Xavier’s background firsthand and upfront, especially in the selections from Pier Queen and Americano. Pieces like “Bushwick Bohemia” and “Nueva York” stake out his territory and provide a backdrop for the anger of “Americano” and especially “Deliverance,” addressed to the local priest:

Padre, perdóname/but where were you when I was three/getting fucked up the ass by my oldest cousin/Palabras reminding me/“IF YOUR MAMI FINDS OUT/SHE’LL LEAVE YOU/LIKE YOUR DADDY DID!”… Padre, perdóname/for trying to kill off Mamí & her boyfriend/pouring bleach into their soup/thinking maybe he won’t beat her no more/maybe she won’t beat me no more

But even the earliest of his work strays from this anger into more uplifting themes, such as “Children of Magdalene,” or “To My Mother On The Occasion of Her Sixtieth Birthday,” which sees him tempering his bitterness with love and respect. He also demonstrates his unwillingness to sink back into the patterns of his elders in “Tradiciones.” One of my favorites of his early poems is the beautiful “Legendary,” where he finds some hope by simply looking at his fellow man:

There are Gods amongst us in these ghettos/so black, so fierce,/so brown, so beautiful,/Their time on earth may be as oppressive as ignorance/limited to the demons flowing in their blood/but after safely passing over back to the clouds/
the wind will still carry their auras and prophecies/their bones will still beat drums/for their children to dance

The pieces from If Jesus Were Gay seem to be transitional, with some familiar devices, like dealing with authority figures such as the police officer in “Waiting for God” and the ultimate authority figure in the title poem, “If Jesus Were Gay”. But Xavier extends his reach here, extrapolating his background to society in general, as in “Urban Affection,” a poem dedicated to Walt Whitman, or the AIDS epidemic in “Walking With Angels”. He even disclaims his own worth and status as a poet in the sometimes hilarious “The Death of Art,” again one of my favorites.

All of this gels in the selections from Nefarious and Radiance, in which Xavier truly comes into his own and becomes confident with his voice and talent, assured of his vision. Nowhere is this growth better reflected than in “Step Father,” in which he revists one of the objects of his boyhood hatred, now old and infirm, and he finds within his hatred a measure of pity and even understanding. This also comes through, although to a lesser extent, in “Men Like My Father”. He hasn’t lost his sense of humor, though, as “The Thing About My Pussy” proves. Xavier also tweaks history, pairing news events with the real deaths of queer men and women in “Sometimes We’re Invisible,” a powerful piece he synthesizes at its finish:

mariposas/brown lives/queer lives/trans lives/we fly in our dreams/brighten skies/still know the sun for flight/the wind for guidance/yet sometimes we’re invisible/may our souls linger over fields/prayers/our names/stories remind them/we are worth love/know god

This is an amazing collection that perfectly encapsulates Emanuel Xavier’s growth as a man and as a poet. As I said at the outset, even if poetry isn’t your usual cuppa, you’ll find much of value here. Highly recommended.


© 2021 Jerry L. Wheeler

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Not the Real Jupiter: A Cassandra Reilly Mystery – Barbara Wilson (Cedar Street Editions)

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One of the perks of this gig is that books just come to my door. Sometimes that’s not a good thing, but many times I find out about authors who may have been around but haven’t come to my attention before, and that’s the case with Barbara Wilson. She’s a Lammy winning author, but since the Lambda Literary Awards started merging categories years ago, they’ve fallen off my radar. Unless the winner is a friend of mine, the names generally go in one ear and out the other, so I’ve missed Barbara Wilson until now. Luckily, however, I’ve discovered her lesbian literary translator/amateur detective, Cassandra Reilly, in the low-key yet suspenseful Not the Real Jupiter.

Itinerant translator Cassandra Reilly is working on a manuscript for her tempermental friend, author Luisa Monteflores, in Monteflores’s apartment in Uruguay. Monteflores is incensed, however, by the proposed cover. Reilly agrees to travel to Oregon to meet the publisher, Giselle Richard, and try to negotiate a solution. But the publisher winds up dead at the bottom of a bluff near her house, and Reilly finds herself under suspicion and unable to travel until she’s cleared. She begins her own investigation, encountering a children’s author, a surly business/life partner, and an amorous librarian seeking a one night stand, all of whom helping her in her effort to solve the mystery so she can go home. Wherever that is.

I found this interesting for a few reasons, not the least of which was that it contained lots of information about literary translators. Although I know a couple, I never really stopped to think of the precision and talent involved in what they do. You’d think as a writer myself, I’d have more of an appreciation in choosing le mot juste, but somehow I never thought of it as an art. But it is. And Wilson portrays Reilly as a woman who’s passionately committed to that art. I also loved the fact that Reilly is past retirement age, yet has never slowed or settled down. Her restless nature informs her sleuthing ability.

But Reilly isn’t the only interesting character here. I also enjoyed the time spent with Nora, a children’s author instrumental in solving the mystery as she was not only friends with Giselle but with Giselle’s mother, Pauline. Very much like Cassandra, Nora is fiercely independent and perfectly content to live out her “golden years” pursuing her career–as is Arlene, the librarian who desperately wants to shag Cassandra. It’s probably not much of a spoiler to say she accomplishes her goal, and both women go their separate ways, happy for the contact but neither willing to take it further. Now, that’s empowering.

The mystery itself takes quite a few turns before finally unraveling, with no help at all from the police. But this is Reilly’s show, and Wilson runs with it, taking full advantage of her gift for plotting and pacing as she leads the reader down one or another garden path before gently guiding you back on track. This is a fine whodunit with sturdy, interesting characters and is well worth your time.


© 2021 Jerry L. Wheeler

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